Thursday, 6 December 2012

The Road Goes Ever On (to give me an excuse to tag this with 'Tolkien')

Lots of interesting thoughts have occurred to me in the last few weeks - but damned if I can remember any of them now...

Editing is a lot less stressful than organising people to get together and shoot.

Sometimes the above statement is true.

Most times it's true. But just occasionally I would cheerfully swap 30 minutes at the computer for six months of production hell.

However, I am not here to complain. Since my last post, 6 or so weeks ago, I have managed to shoot the final two interviewees who had remained uncast (thanks to the unexpected drama backgrounds of supermarket employees!), and am now waiting for one actress to recover from a fairly serious bout of illness in order to shoot the last half page of script. Mayan Calendar notwithstanding, I feel reasonably confident of finishing the film. I've even remembered to back up the the editing project as well as the footage...

Faith (Megan Bay Dorman) in pensive mood

Editing is a curious, absorbing business, and it has one thing in common with filming; with every scene I work on, I find myself losing sight of the rest of the film. The characters who are not in that particular scene leave my mind, and the whole story, the whole film, seems to be what is depicted in those few minutes of screen time.

The scene(s) I'm working on at the moment feature a total of nine characters, but there are four other significant speaking parts that have not entered my mind since I began this sequence (three weeks ago - it's a complex scene).

Louise (Christabel Cossins) and Kimberley (Tessa Cushan)

If you've visited the blog before you may recall me talking about the shoot that nearly went awry at the last minute due to a cast member injuring her back. This is the one. We ended up having to shoot on two different days.

Happily the vastly different light on the two days has turned out to be possible to match using the editing software, and the various I'd-tear-my-hair-out-if-I-had-any problems that have surfaced due to lack of coverage (we shot about six minutes of screen time in about four hours) or continuity blunders seem to have resolved themselves satisfactorily. And I haven't screamed too often.

Bizarrely, in regard to some aspects of the scene the problem has been that I have too much choice - many lovely shots of the cast that I've had to discard. There may still be shots in the edit that I should be cutting. It's not easy to throw away beauty.

Philippa (Philippa Hammond)

The other thing I've done is to put together a second trailer, this time a little more focused on Hazel and her dilemma, as some people felt the first trailer was a little...diffuse, shall we say.

I've also shown some more or less completed scenes to a select audience and had a generally favourable reaction, which is heartening considering the scenes were from the middle of the film and therefore apt to be confusing...

One thought I had gave me pause. I recalled that I booked two weeks off work in July, thinking that was most likely when I'd be editing the film. I need to tell you how that worked out..? Just as well I booked a lot off time off around Christmas, too...

Saturday, 20 October 2012

(Not So) Short Cuts

Ah, editing. Such sweaty sorrow. It brings new meaning to Paul Valery’s famous remark about poems never being finished, only abandoned.

Picture this; you have managed to knock out the montage sequence the musicians require to get on with their work, you’ve rendered it, you’ve popped it into a Dropbox folder and they’ve acknowledged receipt…and suddenly you have a MUCH better idea how to do it.

So you play with the footage, and yes, it’s looking snappier and pacier and much more fun. So you render it. And then suddenly you see how you could move another bit of footage, and if you do that, then...

Alice helped out last time - now it's her turn on camera

And so it goes on. So what I considered a more-or-less finished sequence of the film ends up taking another whole day. It’s worth it, of course it’s worth it, but when do you stop...? I’m reminded of the sequences in the splendid All That Jazz where Roy Scheider’s character continually tweaks the stand-up footage he’s editing, exasperating his colleagues but finally drawing a groan of: ‘It’s better. Oh God – it is better.’ (I quote from memory, so excuse paraphrasing.)

For those of you who care about such things, here’s the contrast between the original edit (left) and the revised version. The single-take scene is broken up and the end redistributed among the other clips, and as a result the music can come in earlier.

Blue columns at the bottom represent text titles inserted for bits I haven’t shot yet – as you can see those have moved, too. (Click on pic to enlarge)

My tired (three year-)old computer will not handle a 100-minute edit of such complexity (at least not without taking so long to auto-save I could go off and shoot a short film while I’m waiting), so I’ve broken the film down into twelve sections, most of them approximating 7-8 pages of script. This makes the mammoth task ahead seem slightly less terrifying, though there are bound to be moments when I wish all the edits were in the same project so I could more easily cross-check things.

Nina Ross reads in and helps Leah Remfry-Peploe with her eyeline

Elsewhere – well, about three metres away in the same room – filming continues on the final interview sequences. I have just two pages of script remaining, involving five or six actresses, depending on whether I feel I can cut a character.

The enormous looming shadow of this final stage job has daunted me, I admit, and as a result I’ve taken some time to get down to this, but now I’m more or less back in the swing of editing, and looking forward to getting into some more complex scenes.

Nina Ross

The next scene in the story involves characters watching TV, and due to our shooting schedule I didn’t have time to edit the footage they were watching, which meant we had to run different takes of the same scenes on the screen over and over again, in disjointed excerpts until I was sure which takes I’d be using. I may not tackle the scenes in story order.

These two things are in no way connected.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Tuesdays With More Actresses

More interviews under the belt, a few more to follow…

Editing was supposed to start this week. And it did – sort of. Part of the problem with a job this big is where to start. One could just begin at the opening shot of the film and work on through, but that just seems to make the whole thing more daunting. Plus I have musicians poised to compose and the parts of the film that would be most useful to them are the sequences without dialogue. So, so far, all I’ve done is nibble at the edges.

So, for now, a stocktake of sorts. What have I learnt from this experience?

There was a point when I thought I’d learnt that you simply don’t do this sort of thing, but I seem to have forgotten that lesson. It will no doubt come back to me with some force when I embark on the next one.

Well, after watching the light change during a brief shot I realise why professional films always use artificial lighting, but I still don’t regret my decision to use natural light 90% of the time. We barely got some of the scenes shot as it was; time spent fiddling with lights would have meant rushing even more. (Plus, I had no money for them, and using someone else’s would have meant factoring yet another person into the scheduling. NO.)

I’m not sure what I learnt about issuing call sheets – except maybe I should have had some. I did find that certain members of the cast got easily confused about what we were shooting and when, and if I ever made the mistake of explaining why something had to be done at a certain time or in a certain way because of something to do with another scene, that compounded the confusion. This of course was where having a producer or some sort of assistant would have been really handy, although the one member of the cast who most strongly suggested that then immediately realised: ‘but of course you’d have to tell them everything to start with’. Realistically, no one was ever going to have even a fraction of the time needed to really support me on this. Since I was re-casting right up to the wire, I was really the only person who could deal with cast liaison.

One thing I learnt was to keep an eye on the bigger picture, script-wise. Several times during shooting I was challenged about particular lines or actions, and on one or two occasions I gave in to suggestions, only to realise that there was a good reason for what I’d done based on the preceding scene or the subsequent one. I simply didn’t have the time to keep going over the script to remind myself how it all fitted together, and that’s something I should have made time for. Fortunately I don’t think any real damage was done.

To say I would have liked a lot more rehearsal time with the cast is an obvious one; the circumstances of the shoot simply didn’t allow for it. We were fantastically lucky to get Jess’s scenes shot in the two weeks we had available (to add to everything else she was moving house at the time) and we couldn’t have done so had Megan not been so flexible about her other work. Jess was cast about a week before we shot, Megan a day or two later.

And I was also supremely lucky that the two weeks I booked off from work when I thought (falls off chair laughing) I’d be editing turned out to be that same fortnight when we had to get a full third of the film shot. It was an absolute nightmare and probably my favourite two-week period of the whole year. And I would be remiss not to mention the other two stalwarts of the production, my leading lady, Talia, and the nearest thing we had to a production assistant, Sophie, who filled in wherever and whenever needed. That fun-filled fortnight would not have worked out without their whole-hearted cooperation.

But probably the most important lesson I learnt was about myself. I started off as a writer. I have written eight or nine novels, but I’ve abandoned many, many more. Once I’ve begun to shoot a film, I’ve never failed to finish it. This one was so nearly the exception. SO MANY times during this process I would happily have walked away without a backward glance – if I had been the only one to be affected. But I couldn’t, I simply couldn’t, let the work of so many other people go to waste. So I now know that it’s easier for me to let myself down than disappoint others. In this case, that was a good thing, because it forced me to keep going and the film got made. For other areas of my life, though…I shall need to watch that.

In the meantime, you can watch this: music by the über-talented Emily Baker, a little mash-up of shots from the film.

That will do, won’t it? I don’t need to edit the entire thing, do I…?

Saturday, 22 September 2012

The Tempest (up-to-the-month Bob Dylan reference) has passed...


It has been a while since I posted. That was mostly because not a lot was happening for a while - I was awaiting the availability of cast members.

However, I can now report that the filming with the main cast has wrapped; a little sound work and some cutaway shots with Megan and a few loose ends with Sharon, and all I have left to do now is what I started with - the interviews.

Ironic that they were supposed to be shot ahead of the rest of the film, before I had bought the DSLR...but then, the whole process has been full of ironies. The interviews came about because I wanted to give everyone I'd worked with on previous projects a chance to have a little screen time, and I've ended up having to use a load of people I hardly knew. (Who have all done superbly, I might add, and to all of whom I am extremely grateful.)

So, this thing that nearly destroyed me is tamed and the end is in sight. The interviews only involve one person at a time, need no crewing, and have no continuity issues bar the (permanent) set, so even if it takes me six months, I can do this. And the clips won't need extensive editing - merely to be dropped in place.

Knowing the filming process is almost over people have begun to look at me with a certain pity in their eyes, the words 'the edit' on their lips. And yes, it's going to be a fairly long haul, but truth to tell, with no one but myself to organise, no illnesses or injuries to work around, no weather forecasts to keep an eye on, no locations to book, no equipment to lug halfway across town, no feeling of dread when I see I have six facebook messages and three texts...well, playing with the footage is going to seem like a total f**cking holiday...

Sunday, 19 August 2012

There And Back Again (or, Traffic-Driving Hobbit Reference #103,074)

A tricky one last Friday. Attempting to film closeups to slot into a scene shot three weeks earlier...

I 'd already had one experience of this that made me decide 'never again', but faced with the prospect of getting the same seven cast members together again, this was most definitely the lesser of two nerve-shredders.

The shooting went well enough except for the inevitable weather problems (since I was relying on natural light); it was far too bright - and consistently so when on the previous occasion the sun spent the morning playing peek-a-boo - and having had problems with a discrepancy between the image as it appeared on camera and the image that presented it self to me in the editing software, I was reluctant to take the exposure too far down. But a swift experiment with the footage when I got home seemed to (mostly) allay fears of incompatibility.

A slightly more serious issue was when I realised there was a very simple, wordless shot I could have got which would have been ideal for establishing Caron in the scene. Would have taken fifteen seconds. (Well, okay, this is filming - it would have taken three minutes, but still...)

However, absolute despair being the mother of sleight-of-hand, I then realised that if I order the shots slightly differently I can achieve the same effect with a different shot. You can save almost everything with some thoughtful editing, as long as you have a good cast and you can see them - hear what they're saying (the last being particularly important in my films. What, a visual medium? Where?).

And of course, since I so am dead set against reshooting parts of scenes to fit in with earlier shoots, any rumours that I might have reshot another bit of another scene in the afternoon are totally unfounded abd both actresses involved are mysteriously unavailable for comment. But had we done that, I'm sure it would have worked out fine - even if the location I described as lovely and quiet (oh, why did I open my mouth?) did suffer from low level machinery rumble most of the afternoon...

Anyway, it occurred to me after the last post that I was so wrapped up in the actual shoot, I completely forgot that we now have a trailer online. It was warmly received at the Brighton Filmmakers Coalition One Shot Challenge Screening, but will likely be slightly revised to incorporate some of the reshoot footage.

Oh, and speaking of reshoots, of course I never do them, but if I had decided to reshoot a bit of the countryside footage because we were completely screwed sound-wise by the wind, and if I had been unable to organise it until a month later, we might have had a slight flora-based discrepancy:

So, it's a really good job we didn't have that to contend with, eh...?

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Live Poets Society

It's actually easy to believe it's been over three weeks since I posted - partly because it feels like about three months.

It's not that nothing's been happening. Rather the opposite.

My leading lady has moved back to London after completing her final scenes in the nick of time, including the scene that we tried to shoot on the very first day of filming and have been trying to schedule ever since, the climactic encounter with the busker, played by Jo Maultby.

Another crucial scene is (mostly) in the can, but not without several crises on the way; the date for the Literary Ladies had been set six weeks in advance, and principal cast members all managed to keep it clear, and I found four guest players to fill the small but vital roles of the ladies...and then one of them had to pull out due to illness four days before we were due to shoot. So, scrambled around, found a replacement...and then two days before the shoot discovered that an absolutely vital member of the cast was severely allergic to cats (of which there were two in the location we were using). By sheer luck the flat of one of guest performers was suitable and available, so after a couple of days of panic, it all seemed set.

And then on the day itself, less than two hours before lift-off, another vital member of the cast texted me to say she had aggravated her back injury (already responsible for one cancelled shoot) and quite literally couldn't move. In vain I pleaded that all she had to do was sit and speak in the scene - she was not risking further injury, which was fair enough. But what were we to do?

There was no way I would get that cast together again, so I did the only thing I could - I shot around the absence.

It meant no really wide shots, which was a pain; the hole left by Caron/Sabrina was variously filled by Thomas Everchild, the ever-reliable Sophie, and even the director for the readthrough.

The talented Chris Andrew was on hand again, mostly to operate the boom, but he found time to play the role of 'Ninjacam' and take a few photos that nobody noticed him getting:

A shame there wasn't time for him to take individual portraits of the ladies - as it is, I turn up in far too many of the shots.

There is more - much more - to tell about the last three weeks, but that seems quite enough for now...

One thing I will add; the weather was like nothing I've ever seen. Relying as usual on natural light (if we had even tried a lighting set up we would have run out of time before we had even half the shots done), I watched the sun go in and come out about once every two minutes. I have several clips which have thumbnails looking completely different at the beginning and end of the clip on the timeline.

I may dedicate this film to the British Summer of a sort of propitiation.

It may help for next time.

Oh, and that's another thing - a very scary thing. Despite it all, despite the never-ending hassles and the ongoing stress and the very clear memory of what this has cost me along the way in shredded nerves, I am already thinking about 'next time'...

Monday, 23 July 2012

The Lives of Others

Want to hear about more hassles? No?

Thought not.


How about the rehearsal for a crucial and complex scene for which I could not possibly procure all the cast involved so I had to make a choice between two dates and as soon as I did and told everyone, two of the people who could make that date suddenly couldn’t? How about…

But no.

I have been reminded lately how remarkably precious life is, not least by the extraordinary blog entry of Jessica Ghawi (writing as Jessica Redfield), killed at the Dark Knight Rises shooting in Aurora. I urge you to read it; if it doesn’t make you acutely aware of the life in you right this moment and how fragile it is, then I can only assume that you are some kind of alien. Or that I am.

It is too easy to forget how lucky we are, simply being comparatively free and not lacking for warmth or nourishment. And those of us who have the opportunity to breathe life into a new creation - whether paid for it or not – are thrice blest. I must remember to be grateful.

Although… I do wonder how many filmmakers are pondering their vocation at the moment, and suddenly feeling doubts about it. Not because entertainment may deprave or corrupt or send signals to a sick mind, but simply because something like the Aurora shooting, and in particular the intensely personal angle on it provided by Jessica Ghawi's writing would surely make anyone wonder about what they’re doing with their life.

Martin Amis said that the writing of fiction seemed redundant – trivial - after 9-11. He recovered his perspective, but now, with this, with this indelible link between a film and an atrocity, the contrast between the absolute preciousness of life and the utter triviality of a blockbuster film could not be starker. In a world where such things can happen, what are we doing – what am I doing – to make them less likely?

Regret calamities, Emerson wrote, if thereby you can help the sufferer. If not, attend your own work and already the evil begins to be repaired. I can spend time asking unanswerable questions or I can get on.

Perhaps the best a film (or a book, or a play) can hope to achieve is to open the heart of one or more members of its audience (or, indeed, one or more of its makers). If, by presenting fictional people, a story can facilitate understanding of some aspect of real behaviour or make a previously misunderstood or unappreciated state of mind more real and more graspable to someone, then perhaps it is not quite a waste of time. If it can make other people more real to us, then in some ways it is not fiction at all, but something truer than reality. That would seem to be reason enough for it to exist.

I make no such grand claims for my own film. I merely hope it looks at life and human beings compassionately, without judgement. There are no villains in this film. There are only misunderstandings and fears. And I hope that every character in the story ends with greater understanding and little less fear. That seems a passage worth charting.

Sorry - this was not what I intended to write. Have a little production diary to wash away the seriousness. Some of Chris Andrew’s pictures of our party shoot:

Friday, 13 July 2012

Nine Days In July

'Some people are in charge of pens that shouldn't be in charge of brooms.' Graham Parker

And some people are in charge of cameras...

I know every creative industry today is about selling yourself, about persuading everyone (including yourself) that you have the greatest product since human beings started to dream...but I prefer to try to be honest. Which is no doubt one of the reasons I'm still doing things with no money.

Leading ladies in every sense: Jess, Talia and Megan

It is not hype, however, to say that I've been blessed with three gifts in the leading roles. Jess and Megan were not even part of this project three weeks ago, but in the last two weeks of intensive shooting they have been everything a producer/director could desire in terms of commitment and attention to detail. And Talia (quite apart from bringing Jess on board) has battled with the loss of her phone and her home internet and bouts of illness to complete the vital Gypsy scenes before Jess escapes to Dubai. And I would be most remiss not to mention Miranda, who injured her back quite seriously but still struggled up several flights of stairs to film some vital wide shots with Jess.

Miranda Morris as 'Emily' - accessories not the actress' own

A filmmaking friend, Dan Harding of 23 1/2 Films was adamant that a large project needed a producer. It wasn't that I thought he was wrong, but where would I find anyone who was able to give the time and energy that was required? So, I've done it all myself. And inevitably I've made mistakes, the most serious of which was a moment of tech-blindness that led to me mis-setting the mic for two days' worth of filming. I have yet to finally confirm whether the sound recordings are usable or whether I will have to resort to my personal bête noire, ADR. (I have never done it except for one carefully planned shot, and swore I never would). I made the same mistake weeks back but it was caught by another member of the crew, and in this case too I was put on the scent by Sophie, who insisted that the sound in her headphones was different. And I had so much on my mind that even after I checked the mic settings I didn't actually see the problem.

I've never had a fortnight like this. It will quite literally be a case of 'going back to work for a rest'. (And on that subject, it was pleasant to hear Megan saying today that her work has seemed decidedly uninviting compared to the time she's spent on set)

Braving the British summer - picture by Crystal Rodrigues

Of course there were times when we all wished we were elsewhere - dodging the rain and being buffetted by the wind in the Devil's Dyke area, for example. We may even have to reshoot a small portion of the film due to the conditions, and I have prepared a line about the British summer to cover the difference in the weath- oh, except that no one will require an explanation...

Lizzie Cornall ('Jill'). Could that be faint sunlight behind her? In July? Surely not!

A word, too, in praise of Sharon Salazar, actress and filmmaker, who became my ever first assistant director, organising the guests for the party scene and enabling me to concentrate on getting the shots I needed. This was on the same day we went out into the wilds, and I had two hours in the afternoon to recharge batteries (my own and the cameras') before launching into a crucial dialogue scene while Sharon and others created the necessary party atmosphere (photos to follow).

Sharon Salazar

We have done good work in the last fortnight, and have some lovely moments captured. It's too early to tell yet whether the whole film will hang together as it should (and of course with the right editing it may yet hang together as it shouldn't), but all the cast have a right to feel proud of themselves. There are continuity issues, and I take sole responsibility for those, with the small caveat that I never dreamed I would have to shoot so much in such a short time. I will know better, and plan better, next time.

Which is an encouraging thing to find myself thinking, because there have been too many times in the last month or so when I felt like giving up filmmaking altogether. If I am in a more optimistic place now, it is because of the support and dedication of others in helping me to realise this story - and collaboration is what this work is all about.

Talia, Jess, Megan, Sophie, Sharon, Miranda, Jenni, Hülya, Robert, Jo, Michael, Lana, Lizzie, Crystal, Gemma, Chloe (and not forgetting Caron when she gets to do a scene!) - thank you all.

Talia and Lana have not yet mastered the first lesson in Monty Python's 'How Not To Be Seen' (picture by Crystal)